Notes from the Archives: Ephemera

by Nancy Noble, MHS Archivist/Cataloger

Ephemera is spread throughout the library of the Maine Historical Society, as well as being kept in a large uncatalogued collection called “ephemera” (broadly categorized by subject). However, every once in a while small nuggets of ephemera pops to the surface and are catalogued individually into Minerva, our online database.

So, what are ephemera? Ephemera are documents created specifically for a transitory purpose. Advertisements, calling cards, notices, and tickets are examples of ephemera.

These latest gems came from the recently processed Weston Homestead collection (Coll. 2650) to be catalogued into our pamphlet collection, as there is no direct association to the Weston family. Some of these advertising cards have an association with Maine, but others are kept just for their unique visual and cultural value. Some are definitely not politically correct, but interesting in that they reflect a different time and place, where racism creeps into even a mostly non-diversified population as Maine and New England.

Sanford’s Ginger. This advertising card, which advertises “the delicious summer medicine,” has a chromolithograph of a young African American girl sitting on a watermelon, rocking a baby in a watermelon cradle, holding a bottle of Sanford’s Ginger. These were the days when a little alcohol was mixed into the medicine without blinking. The description reads: “Prepared with the utmost skill from imported ginger, choice aromatics and the purest and best of medicinal French brandy…” Even more so: “As a pure fruit stimulant, for the aged, mentally and physically exhausted, careworn or overworked, for delicate females, especially mothers, for those recovering from debilitating diseases, and as a means of reforming those addicted to an excessive use of alcoholic stimulants, it is unequalled in the whole range of medicines.” It indeed must be an amazing drug/medicine, as it is guaranteed to help out with ailments from malaria to nervousness to unripe fruit. Not only that, but it’s a “refreshing and invigorating beverage.” [Pamphlet 4917]

And how about “IXL Liniment! The great internal and external remedy”? This promises to cure headache, neuralgia, sprains, bruises, burns, toothache, colic, rheumatism, cramp and pain in the stomach, bowels and side, coughs, colds, influenza, catarrh, diphtheria, sore throat and pain of every kind.” In addition to the liniment, this advertising card persuades you to purchase “Kimball’s Balsam” (the great cough and lung remedy) and “Diamond Corn Solvent” (for a soft or hard corn, wart, or callus). The card is brought to you by O. W. Kimball  Co., Druggists, of Lewiston, Maine. The image on this card is unrelated to the drugs. Entitled “The Ferryman,” it shows a toad giving a mouse with an umbrella a ride through the waterways. [Pamphlet 4921]

Another Maine businessman using advertising cards is “Horatio W. Cushing, Apothecary, and dealer in toilet articles, Skowhegan, Me.” His card promises no particular cure or patent medicine, but shows an image of Santa and his reindeer up on a rooftop. So, perhaps handed out at Christmas time? [Pamphlet 4920]

Back to a politically incorrect card, here is one that advertises another Skowhegan, Maine businessman, O. F. Knowlton, proprietor of the Boston Tea and Coffee House.  This card uses a very non-Maine looking scene of an African American man behind three pigs pulling a  plow, with an African American woman looking on with her hands thrown up in dismay. One wonders how this all fits in together or how Mr. Knowlton came across this image to use to advertise his business. [Pamphlet 4919]

Another card to make one cringe: “Williams & Clark Co’s High Grade Bone Fertilizers” in New York City with two African American men, including one named Sambo, philosophizing about manuring. [Pamphlet 4918]

On a more benign and whimsical note we find an advertising card for a local business: “Hinds’ Honey and Almond Cream, for hands, face, skin, and complexion,” prepared by A. S. Hinds of Portland, Maine. The front depicts a photograph of a young girl wearing wings and holding a wand, with a banner on the stage she stands on pronouncing: “It makes even the fairies fair.” On the back there is more description: “It is unlikely that any other preparation for the skin in that it is entirely free from all oily, greasy, starchy or mucilaginous principals or chemicals, and all the objectionable features found in cold cream, camphor ice, Vaseline, Cosmoline, etc., and washes or lotions containing mineral poisons.” [Pamphlet 4922]

Finally, for pure quirkiness, we have “Smoke thimble: a 10¢ cigar for 5¢,” an advertising card in the shape of a thimble, with a string attached. On the back: “Remove the string from the card without unfastening. Can you do this? It is easy if you know how. If you don’t, call on the first dealer you meet who sells the Thimble 5 Cent Cigar, manufactured by the Faneuil Hall Cigar Co., Boston, Mass.” [Pamphlet 4923]

Just like today, advertising doesn’t necessarily sell the item itself, but it’s enough to get the customer to take a second look.

You can find these advertising cards and more you can search Minerva under “Advertising cards.”

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